‘True Grit’: Some Cattle, Mostly HatBy Frederik Sisa @ 12:00 PM January 28, 2011
The Western today, like a lone tumbleweed, has the tendency of blowing into the movie-going public’s awareness, provoking a few comments for the sheer novelty of it, then blowing right on out in a return to the fringes of unfashionable genre movies. Witness the fate of the neglected gem Appaloosa and, to a lesser extent, the overexcited 3:10 to Yuma. Throw the Coen Brothers into the Western genre, however, and what do you get? Still a tumbleweed, with the disappointing sight of the brothers crouched behind that wandering plant while huffing and puffing it onward. The fault may certainly lie with the book by Charles Portis — honesty compels me to admit that the book hasn’t made my considerably long list of must-reads — but on its own merits True Grit gives the impression of an epic while delivering a lot of wind instead. Or, to borrow from Texas, this is a film that involves some cattle but mostly consists of hat.
One Problem: It Is Too Drawn Out
Stripped of the thoughtfulness that infuses even a lesser Coen film, we are given a film that would amount to yet another exploitative revenge story had the plot been made more explicitly as a horror film or an urban crime drama. One can at least be philosophical about their dissatisfying previous efforts, the Jewish existential jab A Serious Man, or the psychologically banal No Country for Old Men, but with True Grit one has to settle for the ponderous and the simplistic. As it is, the Coens avoid the exploitation formula by inverting the show-don’t-tell rule handed down on stone tablets from Mount Hollywood: They tell us about the interesting bits and show us the dull stretches in between. The mesmerizing opening shot, more of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ artistic work, is a portent of the film’s skewered sensibilities. A blurry spot of light in a field of black that gradually oozes over the screen and coalesces on the snowy still life of a body and a house at night. The effect is beautiful, but marred by narration from the film’s protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who tells us how her father — the body we’re staring at — was cravenly murdered by a desperate fellow named Tom Chaney. The name is often repeated throughout the film as Mattie and her hired U.S. Marshal, along with an initially unwelcome Texas Ranger, pursue the sad sack to either kill him or bring him to a hanging justice. By the time the low-life makes an appearance in the form of a disheveled and pathetic Josh Brolin, the affair rates as an anticlimactic cameo and one wants to slap the Coens in irons for the crime of underutilizing the talent available to them. And what happens in between the moment Mattie tells us about the crime and the inevitable confrontation? Jeff Bridges as a mumbling drunk with a mean streak, Matt Damon as a diligent if dubiously effective Texas Ranger, and the promising Hailee Steinfeld as the resolute Mattie – all pecking for that decisive trail to Chaney while quibbling, in magnificently precise diction, about the pursuit’s worthiness. The performances are all fine, but in the service of stationary characters.
If Westerns, with their uneasy straddling of the line between order and chaos, have served as a mythical stage to morality tales, True Grit is too inert and drawn-out to offer any thought beyond the familiar Old Testament bang of the gun, however possibly ironic. The Westerner’s hostility towards Native Americans, demonstrated by the casual brutality of Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn kicking Native children around (allegedly for mistreating a horse) goes unexamined. The fuzzy demarcation between justice and revenge goes with less note than any of the trashy Death Wish sequels or their contemporary equivalents. Characters are dry as desert except for the inevitable softening effect a headstrong girl in the movies will have on tough guys. Yes, we get it; the Wild West was brutal and unforgiving, but even Westerns delivered as disposable entertainment with quickly-sketched archetypes will tell you that. Or, better yet, any given half-hour episode of the grandly entertaining TV classic Have Gun, Will Travel delivers stronger characters in morally charged, energetic situations than True Grit in its entire hour and fifty minutes.
True Grit. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the novel by Charles Portis. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of Western violence, including disturbing images).
Mr. Sisa is Assistant Editor of www.thefrontpageonline.com
...and also fashion with TFPO's The Fashionoclast at www.fashionoclast.com